I was asked the following question on a recent ask me anything… “When I attended a gender studies seminar in the early nineties we were taught that there are basically two ways of dealing with gender. You can add gender to everything or subtract it from everything. I prefer the latter path. Do you think we need more focus on women in business?”
This question made me pause. I took a few deep breaths to help let go of initial judgement and gut reaction to the question. Then I started on a multi-month quest of thinking through this topic.
Women have inherent struggles they need to overcome to be successful in business and tech. We have menstruation, child-birth, assault, harassment, and oppressive social norms we climb through regularly.
We aren’t taken seriously when we propose months worth of research and recommendations in our specific domain, yet a man without domain expertise in the meeting can repeat the same thing back and be taken as a stroke of genius.
We play kindergarten teacher by bringing attention to the fact that the man’s anger in the meeting made the woman cry for trying to do her job, and that our collective work will go no where if he doesn’t apologize and reconsider his actions.
We get unsolicited and non work-related messages that make us feel uncomfortable and distract us from the job in front of us. Exhibit A:
And potentially most challenging is that we are not understood. Unless someone experiences these challenges, it’s difficult to comprehend how much energy it takes to either ignore, work through, or confront the biases and preconceived judgements associated with women in business.
These challenges, among others I inevitably left out, leave women ignored, lonely, frustrated, burned out, and ready to pack up and leave tech.
According to a 2016 study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the quit rate is more than twice as high for women (41%), as it is for men (17%) in the high tech industry.
After all, when you can see the glass ceiling with men looking down pulling the strings of your puppet arms, it’s a hell of a lot more appealing to get out of the building than it is to stay and dance.
Well, this could just mean that women leave the industry for personal reasons, right? Wrong.
A 2014 study by Bain and Co reported that 43% of women aspire to top management in the first two years of their positions, compared with 34% of men in entry level positions. However, after two years, women’s aspiration levels drop more than 60% while men’s stay the same.
Two years is certainly more than enough time to visualize a glass ceiling, grasp reality of the “yes men” and want nothing to do with it. Please refer to the urban dictionary definition of yes men for this case.
What are we raising children to believe?
When I was in the 3rd grade, we had to choose an unfair topic. I chose sexism. At 8 years old, I understood well that sexism was a problem in our society. I could never understand why women are treated differently than men. Why did I have to play softball when my brothers played baseball? Our genders decided which size ball we were to hit? But… why?
I’m extremely fortunate and grateful. I grew up with brothers that taught me early not to put up with bull $#!& and a badass working single mom that believed in me, supported me, taught me my gender doesn’t make a difference for what’s possible in life, and held all of us kids to the same set of standards. For that, I’m extremely grateful.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the privileged upbringing I had to draw from, where equality is the goal. Where being kicked down and getting back up even stronger is part of the process we expect in life. Where fairness and empathy drive our lessons learned.
I’ve been advocating for women to reach for their goals and dreams since University, when I started a campus Women in Leadership organization to help encourage women to find mentors and learn how to network with others. We lifted each other up, no matter what our background or dreams were.
I remember during my sorority senior farewell night, many of my sisters stating how they “hoped” they could be as successful as I was when they graduate. When it was my time to speak, you better believe I didn’t let hope run alone in their thoughts. I remember my heart racing as I explained…
It takes more than hope in today’s world to get where you want to go… it takes hard work, struggling, belief, a support system, getting back up after you’re kicked down over and over, and taking control of your life when it’s not going in the direction you want it to go.
A belief system forged in my upbringing that not everyone shares.
Since starting my career in tech, I’ve seen case after case of biases that left my female colleagues deflated, questioning everything they know. It saddens me that so many talented, well-educated women are berated, while the male counterpart is praised. I often find myself back in my 8 year-old self perplexed, wondering why people are treated so unequally.
Why does diversity matter more now than ever?
We’ve come SO FAR from the times when women weren’t allowed to vote, or speak out of turn, but we still have work to do. We’re sitting at an inflection point in the expansion of technology in our society. We’re creating new technologies that can impact billions of people with influence like we’ve never seen before.
Studying biases in AI and high growth of certain companies has me curious. Are we creating technology that doubles down on our unconscious biases?
Did Amazon create an AI-driven hiring tool to identify suitable candidates for technical roles that had a bias towards men? Yes. Could AI worsen health disparities? Yes. And how does Alexa respond to “you’re smart” vs. “you’re sexy”?
So we’re at this neat intersection where we have the opportunity to equalize the playing field, create tech teams that look like the real world (full of unique perspectives, races, religions, and genders) and build a new wave of technological tools for living in the future.
We have a choice. Will we create for all of society? Or will we create for the privileged?
Do we subtract gender to the equation, or do we add it?
If we were in a place where all groups were diverse and well represented, then I agree that subtracting gender would be appropriate. But we’re not there, so if we subtract it, we ignore that we are leaving untapped innovation for an inclusive future on the table. When we subtract gender, we take all of those challenges I mentioned above and we tell women those mean nothing… to deal with it on their own.
Until we’re in a place where all groups are diverse and well represented, my opinion is that we should add gender, talk about it, and take action on making sure all genders are represented equally.
Yes, women are different and we have different challenges. But that doesn’t mean we’re any less. I repeat DIFFERENT ≠ LESS.
Studies show that women are more empathetic than men. As we develop technology for the future, we need more discussion on long-term risks, unintended consequences, and negative externalities that accompanies fast product usage growth and artificial intelligence. This requires thinking long-term and having empathy for other people.
The people that make up customer bases of the platforms and the people that will be affected by technology need representation. It’s the best way forward for business and for humankind.
I hate to write anything that exposes a problem without some potential paths forward. The challenge of diversity in tech isn’t going to be fixed overnight, and so we’ll need patience on all fronts. We need to celebrate wins, talk about our experience in the trenches, and start to reshape our perceptions. I recommend starting with the following steps. And if you see something missing, please share in the comments below.
Step 1: Seek to understand your own unconscious biases
It all starts with curiosity and an openness to expose some scary stuff about what we believe. Consider asking yourself the following questions and challenging your team to do the same.
How am I making decisions? How am I treating people that are like me differently than the people that are not like me? Do I think everything is good about a person simply because I like them? Do I believe something about a person because of a stereotype? Am I seeking to prove my existing beliefs correct or am I searching for objective truth? Am I trying to fit into an existing culture or am I living my true beliefs? Does my background and upbringing impact the way I make decisions and speak to people?
Step 2: Be an ally for people less privileged than you
As Melinda Epler explains in the TED Talk below, allyship is about understanding the imbalance in opportunity and working to correct it. It’s about seeing the person next to us and the person missing that should be standing next to us, seeking to understand them, and helping them succeed and thrive with us.
Find the reason why you want to be an ally: for the business case, fairness, or your kids.
Start by doing no harm, learn what micro-aggressions are and don’t do them. Advocate for underrepresented people in small ways. Change someone’s life significantly through mentorship and volunteering.
Step 3: Get out of the bubble, go live a day, week, month in someone else’s shoes
While traveling to another less-privileged country can certainly accomplish this task, it doesn’t need to be so extreme. Are you using chatbot on your website to engage with visitors? Try changing your profile to the opposite sex and notice the differences in how people speak to you.
Step 4: Listen
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve already listened to one person’s story, which is awesome! Lack of awareness and empathy of the inherent challenges of being a minority in tech is a challenge.
Listen to understand. Seek to fathom what others less privileged than you are experiencing and how they feel. Acknowledge what they’re dealing with is unfair and challenging. Not everything will be fixable, at least right away, but you have the opportunity to join someone on your team in the trenches, which can make a big difference for someone feeling alone.
Ask underrepresented people in your company how they’re doing and ask if there’s anything the company can do to help support them and listen. Teams working on diversity can easily forget this. Instead of simply asking, they assume they know and move forward with their own ideas.
Step 5: If you see something, say something
See a conference with no women speakers? A board of directors or leadership team with no diversity? A website full of uniformity? An AI team working in isolation with zero accountability?
Politely say something and hold organizations accountable to diverse representation. Suggest ideas, people you may know, or resources you know of to help bridge the gap. We need to remember not to attack, as that may offend the receiving end and make it challenging to get a conversation moving in the right direction.
Bringing it all together.
We need to combine all of the above steps to help retain under-represented talent. While we can and do continue to make strides in bringing more diverse talent into the pipeline, a more pressing issue is at hand.
Unless we solve for how to retain women in tech, we’ll be filling a leaky bucket, losing talented people through the rigid holes of a toxic work environment. If you’re in business, you can understand why retaining your customers is important… same thing goes for talent.
The future of humankind starts with us. Find your why and start being an ally today. If you need help finding your why, I recommend reading Melinda Gate’s new book Moment of Lift to understand more about gender disparity across the world.
Having been in a few high-pressure growth roles, I know how lonely it can be as the only woman on the team. Having a network of women in similar roles *outside* of my company would have been extremely valuable to give me a sense of belonging and support. If this sounds like something you or a woman on your team could use, please join us at womeningrowth.com or consider our new 3-month in-depth Women in Growth Mastermind to help women thrive in growth roles.